Thursday, March 29, 2012

John 12:20-33 Palm Sunday -- Christ's Cross and Our Lives

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Jesus attracted a lot of favorable attention when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Among the people who wanted to see him were the Greeks John mentions in this morning’s gospel.  They were students, adult confirmands, so to speak, in the Jewish faith.  I’m sure you recall that after he was born, some wise men from the east traveled a great distance to pay him homage.  It must have pleased him that another group of Gentiles wanted to see him when he was looking ahead to his suffering and death.  Their visit was the last recorded public episode in his  ministry before his trial and crucifixion.
            How honored the Greeks must have felt to be near the Lord – the kind of uplifted eagerness that people who have been part of the church for many years can sometimes lose.  They had an instant rapport with the Savior, as if he were the spiritual leader they’d been looking for, as if he’d come just for them.   He must have taught them how to see him in ways they didn’t expect.
            His thoughts were turned toward the week ahead.  He said that the hour had come for him to be glorified.  He didn’t use this word in the everyday, worldly way we’re familiar with.  For Jesus, glory doesn’t mean fanfare or bright lights or a secure place in the history of the world’s great people.  God reveals his glory when his Name stands out before everyone with all its truth and grace and power, when all people see his wisdom and his everlasting strength.  Now, God’s glory comes by means that only he would use – his suffering on the cross.  Jesus taught the Greeks and us and the whole world that he completed his work on earth by suffering the death of a criminal.  What an amazing thing.  God uses a means that human minds call shame and disgrace to make his glory known so that we understand that for Jesus glory means pardon, mercy, spiritual comfort.  Christ was lifted up for the healing of all people.
            He helped his visitors accept the fate that was in store for him by drawing a word-picture from nature.  His death would be like a grain of wheat planted in the ground that returns to life with abundant fruitfulness.  We may also think of a caterpillar that forms a cocoon and then turns into a butterfly.  Death gives way to new and greater life.  Paul explored this idea in one of his letters.  “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.  And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or some other it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable.  What is raised is imperishable....It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”  By the action of God, even death can’t hurt his people.  A wonderful new life is waiting for us on the other side of the grave.
            In the meantime, though, Jesus was troubled.  He hated the idea of the torture and the cross that were to come.  He knew, however, that coming trials would lead to the fulfillment of his work on earth.  He did not retreat.  He brought his troubles to the Heavenly Father, who answered him without delay.  So it was not an idea that strengthened him or a last-minute hope, but the living presence of his eternal Father who was at his side during the struggles that were coming.
            “The man who loves his life will lose it,” Jesus said, “while the one who hates his life in the world will keep it for eternal life.”  Troubles are inevitable, as our Lord knew before us.  The way to deal with them is not to cling and fret or let them eat away at us, but to turn to Christ, seek his guidance, and trust that he will see us through.  Love for this life, which ends in death, adds to trouble, while the person who hates this present life with all its delusions and fleeting joys and surges of worry – that’s a different story.  Folks who see this present life as it is and turn their hearts away from it and cling to the Savior receive a marvelous inheritance – a new, permanent, indestructible everlasting life.
            In other words, something in us dies right now – our attachment to the world, frivolity, double-mindedness – the desire to flee from God.  Our sinfulness dies with Christ.  To quote Paul again, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, that we, too, might walk in newness of life.”  Hope, joy, new life out of death – everlasting life that we receive now by faith as God’s gift to us.
            John shows us the greatness of the Lord and of the Christian faith.  Jesus followed a difficult path.  He walked right into the troubles of the world to win the victory for us.  He was not cold or without feeling, as we said.  He knew what would happen.  Someone pointed out that Jesus’ death was not the same as when a Christian dies today, who knows that the canceling of sin and guilt have removed the terrors of death or the same as the death of an unbeliever, who is blind to what is waiting for him.  Jesus died with all the world’s sin and guilt on his shoulders.  The curse of damnation would strike him and crush his life.  Moreover, he went to his death willingly.  No one forced him.  He could have escaped.  His human nature trembled at the horror of what he had to face.  He lets us see his agony and also his courage.  He did not shrink back.
            His experience applies to us through our faith.  Troubles don’t break our spirits.  Our Heavenly Father strengthens us to cope and to keep on carrying out his will.  Anything worth doing takes discipline and often causes us pain.  Nothing of any value comes without sacrifice.  Students subdue their desire for fun to stick with their books.  Parents and grandparents give up trivialities for their families.  All Christ’s people battle with the devil and their own weaknesses to give glory to God.  Jesus knows from firsthand experience what putting up with troubles means for us.  His love for us empowers us to press toward our goals, the greatest of which is the bliss of heaven.  He gives us the strength to persevere.
            We must never think that we carry our burdens by our own strength.  It may seem to our human flesh that it’s a point of honor to see things through on our own.  Jesus was wiser than we.  He turned his troubles over to his Father in heaven.  A lifetime of living in harmony with the Father’s will paid off for him.  There was no tension between them or unresolved difficulties.  Jesus submitted to the will of his Father, and the Father carried him.
            No trouble is too great for the power and wisdom of God to make right.  He carries our burdens and lifts us up.  We talk to him in faith and trust with all our hearts that he hears us; we wait to see how he helps us.  The one who delivered his Son and turned his suffering to victory will not desert us.  And we are sure to thank him when we see his gracious hand at work in our lives.  We should give him thanks and praise at all times anyway.
            Jesus was lifted up on the cross so that the whole world would know his name and come to him.  His enemies intended the crucifixion to be a judgment upon him, but the Father turned Christ’s death into a judgment on his Son’s enemies.  Somebody wrote that the world pronounced its own death sentence when it killed Jesus and lost the right to exist.  The death of God’s Son shows the emptiness of the world and its vanity.  The things of earth are transient and pass away.  The cross shows that the devil, who rules the world, is weak and full of malice.  Christ, the victor, took his kingdom and his throne away from him.  All he enjoys now is the shadow of power, while Jesus possesses the real thing.
            The various troubles the devil can stir up are nothing compared with the power and glory of God.  He sends us a small share of the miseries that came to Jesus for his own reasons that we don’t always understand, but we can say a few things that I’ll summarize. 
            First, our burdens, our crosses, strengthen our souls and mold us into the likeness of Jesus.
            Second, they teach us about the vanity and unreliability of the world around us.
            Third, God uses our troubles as means by which his glory shines through us.  Our neighbors see his hand at work in our strength.  They see the faith that our gracious Lord has planted in our souls..
            Fourth, the Father uses our burdens to make us obedient to his will with cheerful hearts.  He weakens us so as to make us strong in him.
            And fifth, he gives us a taste of Jesus’ cross so that we will know the extent of the Savior’s love for us.
            Hard times puzzle us but they do not break our spirits.  We ourselves may not know why they come, but we trust that God does know and we lean on him.  He promises to turn every difficulty around for our benefit and his glory, in his own way and in his own good time.  What do we do?  We wait and rely on him in trust, as I have a feeling the people of St. Peters have had a lot of experience at.  In Jesus’ name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mark 10:25-45 Saints who Serve

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            We begin our message this morning with a few words about the apostle James.  He was a member of Jesus’ inner circle, along with his brother John and Peter. He witnessed the Transfiguration personally and also the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  Jesus called him aside with the two others who were closest to him to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified. James was the first of the twelve apostles to suffer a martyr’s death and the only one whose passing away is recorded in the New Testament.
            We know a few things about him other than this and if we look at the New Testament texts that mention him, we can learn a lot about what it means to be a Christian and a saint. James was a fisherman, an ordinary person. Jesus once called him and his brother the sons of thunder because they were impulsive, strong-headed, and full of zeal for the work Jesus gave them. Most people today admire different qualities – polish, smoothness of manner, a quick wit, and the ability to express yourself in public. Anyone who feels strongly about something is likely to be called a fanatic, but firmness of purpose and refusal to bend can be good traits, especially if God calls you to be a saint.
            Now, we should say a few words about what it means to be a saint. In everyday usage, a saint is someone who tries hard all the time and has a pile of good deeds to his or her credit. The Bible means something else when its writers use the word saint: someone who keeps faith with God no matter what. A person who trusts God’s word, who turns his or her cares over to the Lord, and who seeks and accepts God’s forgiveness is a saint. This frame of mind naturally leads to good works and a desire to please God. The disposition of the heart is what counts. Faith makes a saint and faith creates eagerness to live with God. With this way of looking at things, we can say that St. Peter’s people are saints. It’s a high calling, and when we think about each other, I hope we’ll remember that God looks on us as saints.   
            This may surprise us when we hear it, because we know how sinful we are. We fall way short when we measure ourselves against the Lord’s standards. And this is exactly the point. Paul wrote that we are saints and sinners at the same time. But we live in God’s grace and mercy, so the saint part predominates. We are more saints than we are sinners. If we are still doubtful, it helps to recall how we came by this calling, not as a result of our own works and deeds, but because of God’s holy and unchangeable declaration. He declares that we are saints. If we ever pass through a rough time and wonder what will become of us, we have the right to remember that because of our faith and for the sake of his Son, God has determined that we are saints. It’s like an invisible brand that each one of us carries after our baptisms. God claims us as his saints whom he loves.
            Now, God conferred the same high status on James that he bestows on us, and as we look at the few gospel passages that refer to James, we learn something about what happens as God’s saints live out their lives before him.  To begin with, God doesn’t want us to rest complacently in the gifts he has given us. He expects us to be spiritually active. He wants us to grow and mature. We see this in the case of James.
            There was the time just after the Transfiguration when a certain Samaritan village refused hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. James and his brother suggested that they call down fire to destroy the town just as Elijah had called down fire on a gathering of pagans. James didn’t consider that the situation was much different in Elijah’s day. He acted in a very human way. Some people focus on one thing and commit themselves to it completely. They wish to protect it, even to the point of punishing others when they don’t have the authority to do so. James felt that way about Jesus. His loyalty must have pleased the Lord, but his understanding needed to be refined. Jesus pointed out that he didn’t know the spirit that he was now made of. Christ’s disciples are agents of salvation, not destruction. The gospel had not yet been preached in the Samaritan village. The people there had not yet had the chance either to accept or reject the Lord. They were still ignorant, and the Lord wishes to cut off no one’s chance to learn. The Lord is patient and forbearing; he doesn’t act in haste. He wants everyone to hear the gospel and to discover that it’s full of grace and truth. This means that James – and all of Christ’s disciples – put up with numerous inconveniences out of love for God and our neighbors. We try to understand what other people are thinking and feeling and work to find God-pleasing words that will reach them. this isn’t always easy.  We sometimes must struggle to keep from lashing out or expressing our personal opinions in full about one thing or another. Sometimes we can be so devoted to what we know to be true that we give offense without meaning to. There are times, of course, when people need to be offended so that they will wake up. Again, what counts is what’s in our hearts. We don’t act so as to get our own back but to serve the Lord and to encourage our neighbors along the road to salvation. This is part of what it means to be a saint.
            Jesus makes a similar point in this morning’s gospel. James and his brother are concerned about the very human question of who will be first. Some people love the limelight and are most happy when their good deeds are recognized and they reach positions of special prominence.
            Jesus says that the way of the saint is the way of suffering. The world takes one path, God’s saints take another. Our age pays a lot of attention to celebrities. We watch them and because of what seems like their wonderful lives, many people imagine what it’s like to be in their places and live alongside them. An experienced observer once said that everyone besides rock stars and movie stars is deprived. Maybe so, maybe the rest of us have seeds of unfulfillment and frustration growing in our hearts so that we long to be in first place. The point is that saints work with earthly inequities and make something good out of them for themselves, their neighbors, and the Lord. The strong oppress the weak, but God, who is the strongest of all, lifts up the humble of heart. He sustains and supports. He doesn’t ignore the poor. He blesses the faithfulness of his saints as we give our testimony to a greater more, substantial reality than the earthly one. Questions of prestige and precedence can be interesting, but the affirmations of God are more substantial and trustworthy. The Bible teaches us that a lot of life on earth is full of vanity. Nothing on earth will endure forever. Many things are constantly changing. Our true home is with God, who created us, who ransomed us by his blood, and who never changes.  How valuable is the witness of God’s people in a world that loves to chase fleeting things. Living as a saint does sometimes call for putting up with inconvenience, especially when people reject the truth and mock the Lord. God’s people endure the bad side of life on earth and keep our minds fixed on Jesus – his mercy now and his promises of a better kingdom to come in heaven. We keep on going with joyfulness. Our neighbors need the steady light of faith that shines from us. Our lives as saints are much more valuable than we may suppose. 
            This brings us, then, to a third feature of our lives as saints that the Lord refers to – the importance of service. The other disciples were angry with James and his brother because they sought preference they weren’t entitled to. It’s always vexing, for example, if someone jumps ahead of us in a line that we’re patiently waiting in. One of the first things I learned when I came to Canada was that Canadians generally disapprove of line-jumping and this is a good thing. But competitive striving is a big part of the rat-race in the world we live in. someone wants to rush ahead; others are bound to get crushed. The situation is different in God’s kingdom, as Jesus said. He didn’t say it’s wrong to want to be first, but the way to achieve first place is by service. The one who serves rules.
            Jesus is the chief of servants. He set aside his divine status and took on humble human flesh. Then he gave up his earthly life to redeem the world from sin. Christians take the ideal of service from the Lord’s example.
            St. Peter’s people know a lot about being servants. The purpose of the gospel text for us is to encourage us in our callings. There is no shame in being a servant, God tells us. For Christians, service is the only way of life. How much better the world would be if everyone submerged their love for power and prestige and welcomed lives of service. Here again, God’s saints show the way. We know that the ups and downs of earthly life can’t injure our immortal souls, so we serve in joy, knowing that God is pleased and that our neighbors benefit. He calls us to look ahead confidently to a better day when we will receive a reward that we can now scarcely imagine. In the meantime, we have the reward of satisfaction that comes when we know that we have carried out our tasks as well as we can.
            Living as saints; isn’t easy. We sometimes have to struggle to subdue the desire to be in first place or to thirst for revenge. To accept the burdens of sacrifice and service calls for a depth of character that only God can give. Jesus walked the path ahead of us and shows us how it’s done. What’s more, he accepted death on the cross so that you and I might find comfort and peace and the encouragement to keep on. We bring our doubts to the cross and our feelings of failure and our rebelliousness. Jesus pardons and gives us the hope and strength to go on. He loves his saints and will not give up on us. He will carry us along every winding road to the great day of his return that is to come. In his name, we give thanks. AMEN.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John 3:1 - 17 "God so Loved the World..."

Grace and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Nicodemus was an interesting case.  He was an important man, a member of the ruling council of Israel, as powerful as a cabinet minister or a member of the Canadian senate.  He must have had wisdom as well as authority, for Jesus called him a teacher of his people.  We’ll pretend that Nicodemus has come to St. Peters to speak to us.  “Everyone had heard about Jesus,” he says.  “Reports about his teaching and his personality told me that he was the sort of man I’d like, so I wanted to find out for myself.  I didn’t want to offend the other members of the ruling council and that’s why I visited him at night.  I told him that his miracles had made a big impression on me.  He could only have done that sort of thing if God was with him.  I’m the kind of man who likes a challenge, and it didn’t take Jesus long to challenge me.  He used words in a way I’d never heard before.  He said that everyone who wants to see the kingdom of God needs to be born again.  Born again, think of it.  Not of the flesh this time, but of water and the Spirit. I asked one of his disciples later on what he meant.  This man said that the Spirit awakens tired hearts and brings new life.  He replaces emptiness with hope and joy.  The new kind of life that he brings is eternal and everlasting.  We take hold of it by faith.
            “This disciple was a big help to me.  He told me that faith isn’t simply a general good feeling about life.  It needs to be directed toward one specific thing, and that was why Jesus spoke to me about the Son of God – he himself, who came down from heaven and would return to it by way of a cross.  Jesus would give his life for the healing of the whole world.
            “These assurances came to me as a wonderful surprise.  They lifted me up.  I’ve discovered that God’s promises have the power to change lives, including mine, as I showed when I defended Jesus later on before the same council I was afraid to upset and when, after he was crucified, I brought spices to anoint his body.  He made me strong, you see, and full of faith, and brave.  He gave me power and taught me that I could do the right thing even when it’s difficult.
            “But I don’t want to talk to you only about myself.  Jesus also has a message for the people of Jerusalem and our nation.  He once said that he came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which I was one.  We had strayed and his mission was to bring us back to God.  The problem was that we had turned the faith that God gave us to bring us life into a dead religion of habit and custom.  One of our leading groups taught that life with God centered around the temple. Another group believed that what counts most is living by the moral code.  They had 613 commandments that included 39 laws having to do with the Sabbath.  Jesus broke through the traditions we had built up; he taught that life with God depends on faith and on the work of the Spirit.  He brought liberty from artificial restraints and the freedom to live in confidence with God.
            “The disciple I met said that this was important.  Every religion except the faith that Jesus brought into the world teaches that there is only one way to please God and that is by keeping his laws, and that includes, most important, the rule of love.  But no one keeps the law perfectly and God demands perfection.  In order to save us, then, he needed to take action himself, and so he sent his Son, who kept the law perfectly for us and then gave up his life to pay for our shortcomings.  The Heavenly Father doesn’t condemn us for our failures.  He asks us to trust in Jesus, who won the salvation that we can’t earn ourselves. Other religions emphasize what we need to do.  Jesus proclaims what God has done for us.  We cling to him.
            “But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Jesus breathed new life into our old faith.  He wanted to give the people of Israel new energy so that we would be the blessing for the rest of the world that God intended.  He wants to bring every single person to faith in him; he intended to use his beloved children of Israel to help him.
            “So when Jesus told me about God’s love for the world and his own work, he was also speaking to everyone, Jews and Gentiles, female and male, old and young. People everywhere are busy; we make plans; we use our abilities to do the best we can. Most of us know how to stay interested in life and many are comfortable.  Resilience is part of human nature; we know how to recover from setbacks.  At the same time, the Scriptures teach us that God sees the world as full of sin – dead in its trespasses.  He turns his wrath on sin.  No one could blame him if he shut the world down.  He doesn’t work that way, though. He loves the world. His will is to save, not condemn, so he sent his Son to rescue us. He offers a new kind of life, one that isn’t based on sin, that begins with the new birth he told me about.  This is his gift to us, which he gives to us by waking up our faith in him.   Faith in the Savior who died for us is a sign of life and makes us alive through him.  We turn from death to life, away from sin to God and his Son – a hundred times every day, sometimes without even noticing it, and this life is eternal and everlasting.  Death can’t wipe it out, because death is the gateway through which we pass to the heavenly world.
            “God does not wish to exclude anyone from eternal life.  He calls to us all.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...’  I think you know the rest.  The disciple told me that this sentence is so full of meaning that if we know only these words and nothing else from the Bible and that if we take hold of them in faith, we will be saved.  They make sad folks happy and bring to life those whose souls are dead.  What a blessing to people who fear they must please God with their own works and know that they can’t.  Everyone who believes in Jesus is saved.
            “But there’s a catch.  By nature, we love sin more than we love God.  We prefer to do things on our own.  It’s natural for us to say when the light of Christ appears that we don’t need it, that we are strong, we can rely on ourselves.  We say that sin is only a minor defect that we can overcome if we try hard enough, when the fact is that sin is a powerful force that corrupts human nature.  Evil touches everyone.  How common it is for us to cherish our sins and to make excuses for them – anger, lust, selfishness, pride.  We can come up with reasons for everything we do that’s wrong and then keep on doing it.  And when the light of Christ comes, we run away into the shadows, because we don’t want to hear sin called by its right name.
            “Still, the light of Christ keeps on shining and some folks, like the ones who worship at St. Peters, catch on.  We don’t take hold of salvation until we understand that we’re helpless without God. With him, we are saved.  Jesus comes to us with God’s love.  He doesn’t give up.  He is faithful and loving and won’t go back on his promises.  He brings us here today to rejoice in the new life he has prepared for us through his earthly ministry and his death and resurrection.
            “God is not harsh or severe, but just and loving.  He smiles on our faith and forgives our failings.  The trials that come to us aren’t punishments but ways God uses to test and refine us.  Because we believe in Jesus, God does not judge us.  It may be that our faith is shaky at times, but our Heavenly Father doesn’t look only at passing moments.  He sees the future, where what may be small at one point can grow to great strength.
            “It’s enough to believe in Jesus with words only, but with heart and soul and mind.  Judgment won’t fall on us when the great day comes.  God will affirm publicly the verdict he had already passed on us because of our faith in his Son. He claims us as his adopted children; he promises to bless us with the ability to carry on in the faith until the day of fulfillment when we will reign as kings and queens alongside our Savior.
            “I invite you,” Nicodemus concludes, “to thank God for his promises to us in Christ.  We praise him for the offer of eternal life that he gave to the world through his Son. We remember, too, that our Heavenly Father  is using us now.  His church and her people are blessings to the whole world.  We don’t keep Jesus’ gifts of faith to ourselves but spread them around.  His light shines through us so that others see Jesus in us.  We each give a testimony in our own way.  We don’t give up.  We keep on going.  Only God himself can see what good things he will make out of our faith in him.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.   
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John 9 A Man Born Blind -- Amazing Grace

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            This morning’s gospel text is one of the best-loved passages in the Bible.  The account of a man who was born blind, received his sight, and declared his faith in spite of opposition inspired a former slave trader to write the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace.”  This passage tells us a lot of other things, too – about Jesus and the man to whom he gave the ability to see and ourselves, too, of course.
            For one thing, we see our Lord’s love for the poor.  The blind man’s parents were so needy that he had to spend his days begging in front of the temple; they didn’t have enough at home to care for their disabled son.  When he gave him the gift of sight, Jesus enabled him to take part fully in earthly life, not so that he could bask in luxury, but to free him from a burden.  He could earn his living and even find a marriage partner for the years ahead.  The man born blind had a reason to give God glory, just as we give him thanks that none of us needs to beg.  We don’t live on the streets, and the Lord invites us to trust that we never will.  We thank him for blessing us with the faith that life will go well.
            The gospel text also teaches us a lesson about suffering.  The Pharisees thought that the man was blind because either he or his parents had sinned.  This was the teaching of the day – that suffering came as a result of sin.  This is true sometimes, of course, as when criminals are taken to jail for their misdeeds, but not every instance of suffering is a punishment from God.  The Bible doesn’t explain why suffering takes place, but where believers are concerned, we do know that privation drives us to God.  Hard times refine our faith.  Adversity gives us a chance to share in the sufferings of our Lord.  Jesus promises to transform hardship into good for his own glory and the benefit of his people.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus said, “but this has happened so that the Word of God might be displayed in his life.”  God showed his power and his will to heal by giving sight to this one blind man.  He sends a message about himself to everyone who reads or hears this story; he is loving, sympathetic to our troubles, and on the side of healing.
            The gospel reading also reminds us that God is in control of the universe.  He is not indifferent.  He acts in the world, though his presence is hidden and he is concealed from view.  We trust by faith that he is the master.  He promises his people new and greater life beyond the gateway of the grave.  Life with him will never end.
            The healing of the blind man also demonstrates that Jesus breaks through tiresome human traditions.  He cured the man on the Sabbath with some clay he mixed with saliva.  There was a law in those days that said you couldn’t do any kneading on the Lords’ day.  A housewife could not make bread.  Jesus was not supposed to mix clay and spit.  There were dozens of other rules that did not serve God’s intentions but worked to exalt the people who thought them up.  Our culture nowadays has gone in the opposite direction. Secular society doesn’t recognize a day of rest at all.  Anyone who wants to work all the time may do so.  Some folks hold two or three jobs just to get by.  We Christians express our freedom in the Lord by welcoming limits.  We fix our attention on Jesus and receive with delight the Sabbath rest he provides .  We don’t work all the time; we don’t bury our noses in a man-made rule book.  Neither do we take part in foolish, sinful recreations.  Like Jesus, we are exceptions to the practices that surround us.
            John used the story of then man healed of blindness to emphasize one of the main points of his gospel – that Jesus is the light of the world.  His light exposes the darkness of sin; it also draws people to new life.  For the Pharisees and others opposed to the Lord, the light of Christ accuses.  For believers – that’s us – it is a light of comfort, consolation, and hope.  For those who at least partly understand their sin and welcome forgiveness through the blood Jesus shed, the light means life and salvation – the blessing of God on his people.
            We’ll switch our standpoint now and focus on the man to whom Jesus gave the ability to see.  He received two kinds of healing that day, physical and spiritual.  We see growth in his understanding of who Jesus is.  He called him first a man, then a prophet, then a righteous man of God, and finally the son of man, worthy of his trust and worship.
            He arrived at secure faith only after a terrific inner battle, for conflicting influences pressed upon him.  His parents were indifferent to spiritual things, for they believed that the best way to survive was by sitting on the fence.  The Pharisees were hostile to the Lord.  Jesus overcame the impediments that held the man back and called him to new faith.  Unlike many others, he chose the Lord.  “I was blind but now I see.”
            We humans usually want to do things on our own.  We like to be our own masters and do everything our own way.  Self-will explains the man-made so-called spiritual laws of Christ’s time as well as the neglect of Sabbath guidelines in our own, along with many other practices that do not please the Lord.  We don’t like to depend on anyone.  The man to whom Jesus gave sight, however, understood his weakness and so he was ready to trust the Lord who had healed him.  There is a hidden blessing in weakness.  When we know we can’t take care of ourselves, we’re willing to accept help.  Children can be especially responsive to God’s word, as can seniors, like some of the people here and folks I used to know in Sudbury.
            People in their most active years can pass through terrific struggles over questions of faith.  People brought up with Christian training at home and in Sunday school know that God wants to help them and guide them and that they owe him their loyalty.  At the same time, the world encourages them to stand on their own, take part in life, and not be held back by what look like restraints or sugar pills.
            The problem is not with God but in human nature.  Jesus’ healing of the blind man contradicts some popular beliefs about the church.  The Lord encourages his people to be active and fully engaged in life. He supports us if we want to be busy and if we find things to do that we like.  He helps us extend our influence into our communities and to take on responsibility.
            The problem is that we don’t truly want what we claim we want.  Isaiah wrote that nobody can be blind the way God’s people sometimes can be blind.  We don’t look for responsibility but easy-going relationships.  We look for fun forgetting that we’re called to set Christian examples. We confuse sentiment with God’s kind of love.  We think that others should live for our benefit.  We come to think that laziness and rest are the same things.  Our hearts are divided.  We’re imperfectly grown up.  We may even believe that the Lord doesn’t want us to do our best.  I’ve heard that owners of sport teams sometimes worry if their players turn to Christ, because they fear that they will no longer be capable of the extra effort.  This is true, of course, if the words “extra effort” refer to cheating or roughhousing or drugs, but as a general guideline the Lord expects his people to do their best.
            It often happens, though, as Martin Luther pointed out, that while our faith grows in strength our old sinful selves also grow and become sneaky and experts at making excuses.  Christians can be as skilled at self-righteousness as the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.
            Our sight is imperfect, but the good Lord sees things clearly, and he has his eye on us.  If we find ourselves in spiritual struggles of one kind or another it’s because he has put us there.  He trains and corrects our wills and teaches us to want wholeheartedly exactly what he wants for us.  We may fool ourselves with deceitful excuses, but we don’t fool him.  He knows that we’ll mess things up if we try to decide on our own what’s best, and so he teaches us the fine art of depending on him.  He brings us through suffering to humble trust in his word.
            So we come back to the gospel song “Amazing Grace.”  By nature we are all spiritually blind, spiritually dead, and enemies of God.  Some of these negatives remain even in the hearts of  Christians, for we are saints and sinners at the same time.  Imperfection will stay with us until we reach the next life.  But God’s grace also accompanies us, and grace is stronger than sin.  The formerly blind man did not make excuses or take credit himself for his healing.  He knew that without Jesus, he would have remained a wretch, lost and floundering.   The Savior’s pardon covered him.  His grace flows down on the world in never-ceasing abundance.  His blood washes away all our faults and transgressions. It renews us and makes us whole, forgiveness is the true healing.
            There was nothing extraordinary about the man born blind.  John tells us his story so that we may stand in his shoes.  Our needs are not very different from his.  The Lord gave him both physical and spiritual sight.  The work of God shone in his life; his healing brought glory to Jesus.  The name of Christ shines in us, too.  Our lives give him glory.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  Amen          

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mark 8:27 - 38 Carrying our Crosses

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            A Christian once remarked to me that apart from our Lord, the gospel writers always gave St. Peter the best lines to speak, so we’ll begin this morning’s reflections with Peter. At the start of this morning’s gospel reading, he spoke for the other disciples and said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God.  How pleased the Savior must have been to hear this confession of faith.  But then Peter said something that greatly displeased the Lord.  He heard what Jesus said about his suffering, rejection, and death, and he was distressed.  Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection, you see, had not registered in Peter’s mind.  He heard only the bad news, so he said that such terrible things shouldn’t happen to the Son of God.  Jesus knew, however, that his future included a cross of suffering and that anyone who tried to keep him from it would be tempting him the way Satan tempted him in the wilderness.  He needed to break the influence of Peter’s well-intentioned concern.  Suffering comes before glory.  We sow in tears and reap in joy.  This is a rule of earthly life that was especially true for our Lord.  We don’t accomplish anything worthwhile without discipline, sacrifice, and hardship.  Athletes train; students stick to their books; mothers and fathers – and grandparents – make sacrifices every day.  Jesus gave up his earthly life so that the whole world may know God.
            He needed to speak sharply to Peter, then, but he didn’t hold Peter’s lapse against him.  He lifted him up, instead, and strengthened him to carry his own cross.  It’s human nature to say that a person who offends us once will do so again and so it may be best to break off relations.  Jesus works by a different principle.  He wanted Peter to be the best man he could be, so he forgave him.  He introduced Peter and the other disciples to one of the secrets of worthwhile living.  People who want meaningful lives accept burdens.  If we want to accomplish something like finding a new place to live or raising a family, we pay attention to that and give up other things, as interesting and tempting as they may be.  We carry our crosses.   A full life includes sacrifice and self-denial.
            Crosses are not pleasant or easy.  They challenge us.  We hardly ever get to choose the ones that we’ll carry.  Our crosses are imposed from outside us.  “If I have to give up that month in Hawaii to help my neighbor who is ill,” we might say, “then I won’t by myself anymore.”  Or: “I’ll lose my good nature if I have to go out of the house and deal with people who are impossible to get along with.”  We learn from Jesus’ example, however, that crosses bring rewards and that blessings come from self-denial.  Our flesh may rebel, but the Holy Spirit that lives within us strengthens us to walk along the rocky road that leads to satisfaction.        
            When we Christians speak about carrying crosses, we often refer to something very specific, not just any hardship, but the burdens we bear because we’re Christians – first, the penalties the unbelieving world may put upon us, which are very severe in certain countries, and even difficult in Canada as materialism and misuse of freedom capture so many minds.  We carry a cross when for Jesus’ sake we deny ourselves pleasures and privileges that are available nowadays in abundance.  In the second place, we carry a cross when we recognize our shortcomings and feel sorry for our sins.  This is a daily reality for us, because our consciences are very active.  We feel grief when the Holy Spirit convinces us of our sins, and we may wonder at low moments if we have made a mess of our lives.  We know how Peter must have felt when the Lord called him Satan.
            As Jesus forgave his apostles, though, he also pardons us.  No matter how weak our flesh or grave our offenses may be, the blood of Christ washes us clean and strengthens us.  The Savior is infinitely forgiving.  He encourages us never to give up the hope of abundant, godly living.  He doesn’t give up on us.  He empowers us to deny ourselves for the sake of the best.
            Along with the blessing of forgiveness, he confers a new status upon us.  We’re ordinary people, of course, but at the same time our Christian faith means that we are the Heavenly Father’s adopted daughters and sons.  The Lord assures us of his fatherly goodness.  He promised Jacob that he would be with him and watch over him.  He promised never to leave him.  The Father’s love for his people is much greater than the love of an earthly father, and so we trust that the crosses he gives us – whether concern for others or the stress of living in a secular culture or awareness if sin – will not be too heavy for us to carry.  We don’t lose sight of the better life he has prepared for us, because his fatherly hand strengthens us to persevere.
            Together with forgiveness and a new status, the Savior also transforms us.  He renews our minds.  Paul wrote in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  God’s Spirit fine tunes us so that we focus on Jesus instead of the things of the world that momentarily catch our attention.  We direct our wills and our desires toward Christ in whom we find riches beyond riches.
            A sports psychologist once said that he works to build up the self-esteem of the athletes who come to him by getting them to change the kinds of thoughts they think.  Most people have a high number of thoughts every hour.  A surprising number of thoughts for many people are negative, and many of these negative thoughts are directed at themselves, such thoughts as, “Oh, I’m not going to do well today,” or “I can’t cope” or “I guess I’ll never reach the goal I set for myself.”  The psychologist said that he trains athletes to turn such thoughts around and to say instead, “I’m going to do my best,” or “I’ll make a bit of progress today” or “I’m going to stretch myself this week.”  He said that this discipline produces remarkable results.  If we think well of ourselves, we have a good chance of doing well.  But thoughts can create self-fulfilling prophecies.
            It’s easy to imagine adapting these guidelines to fit a Christian pattern.  Suppose that instead of surrendering to negative thoughts when we meet a stressful situation, we train ourselves to say: “The Spirit is working on me.  I’ll be able to cope.”  Or: “God is guiding me to renew my mind.”  Or: “The Lord will help me to bear up under these burdens.”  Then the rocky road will smooth out and we won’t lose our pictures of the better life our Heavenly Father is creating for us.  To strive for better understanding of our Lord’s promise to transform would make a good Lenten discipline.  We’d do well to remember every time we catch a hurtful thought flying in our own direction to say this: “I am forgiven, a child of God; his power to transform is renewing me.  His cross is reshaping me.”  If we think this sort of thing, we proclaim Jesus’ victory over the devil to ourselves and we are strengthened to bear the weight of our own crosses.  We become confident that the fruits of salvation are planted deep in our minds and hearts.
            Progress in devotion to our Lord isn’t always obvious, of course.  There are times when faith is deeply hidden, as God is hidden from our sight, periods when joy seems far removed from us.  Such wintry moments don’t corrupt our minds, thank God.  We remember that we are forgiven, that we are God’s beloved children, and that his transforming power is at work on us.  He gives us the valleys through which we pass so that we may receive from him – and only from him – the faith to keep on going.  He steadies us so that we don’t drop our crosses, because then we are most like Christ, who teaches us how to take the difficult but rewarding road, the way of self-denial and sacrifice that leads to victory and ever-lasting joy.
            Now, from what I’ve seen, I suspect that St. Peter’s people don’t shrink from carrying crosses.  I’m sure you often make sacrifices for the good of others, resist temptation with God’s help, patiently endure the roadblocks that secular society puts in your way, and repent of your sins.  Though rewards can be hidden and delayed, I believe that you take to heart Jesus’ admonition to deny ourselves and to pass by earthly glitter.
            What a witness you make to your neighbors.  You show them that life is more than work and fun, providing material things and building comfortable nests.  You set examples by following the cross that leads to victory. As you live under the cross in sacrifice, self-denial, and joy, you show your n neighbors that there is a better way than the way of the world.  Some will pay attention and seek God along with you.
            The whole Christian church is passing through a time of humbling just now.  As always, the kingdom lives under the cross, and the cross ultimately comes from God.  He chastens his people for a purpose, to purify us so that we will turn to him in faith.  He teaches the church today the same lesson the Savior taught Peter, that God’s people don’t find their fulfillment in comfort and security of life.  We don’t live for our stomachs or our bank accounts.  Nor do we think the church needs to be powerful and glamorous.  We are people of the cross, whom the Lord encourages and nourishes in his special way.  We know a lot about what it means to carry a cross.  The point is that the Lord carries us. He will keep on strengthening us and helping us to endure.  Peter missed the message about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  Thanks to God, we do not make the same mistake.  We keep on going; we don’t give up.  A very great day is coming and we’ll be part of it.  The Lord will return.  He will claim us and all believers.  When that day comes, the crosses of the present day will look like nothing.  In Jesus’ Name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.